In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Few filmmakers can be said to work in a style so singular that any given frame is instantly identifiable. Sweden’s Roy Andersson, however, has carved out a niche so distinctive that he has no imitators, no descendants, and no disciples. Maybe it’s just that nobody else has the patience for his painstaking approach to cinema—he’s made only two features in the past 13 years (though his next one is reportedly due in 2014), because each picture takes five to seven years to construct. Literally, construct: Every Andersson scene is a single shot from a fixed camera position, and he builds each one from scratch on a soundstage, spending weeks or months getting everything just right. It’s a style that he originally created for Swedish TV commercials, of which he’s directed hundreds… but the commercials, too, look like nothing else you’ve ever seen. In some ways he’s more of a painter than a filmmaker, except that his canvas happens to be three-dimensional and his subjects move around a bit.
Songs From The Second Floor, which had its world premiere at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, was the first film he made in his mature style. (His first two features, 1970’s A Swedish Love Story and 1975’s Giliap, are much more conventional. It took him a quarter-century to re-emerge on the big screen.) It consists of 46 shots/scenes, any one of which would work beautifully for this column. Masochistically, I’ve chosen to discuss the one that I have no idea how he achieved. Though the film’s narrative is sparse and oblique, it gradually becomes clear that something apocalyptic is going on; we meet a number of odd characters (all played by actors chosen primarily for their atypical physiognomy), then watch as the world seems to go to hell around them. The wealthy and powerful, it seems, have made plans to escape—it’s implied that this involves leaving the planet entirely, somehow—and near the end of the film they’re seen at what we might as well call an airport, though it only vaguely resembles any check-in area in the real world. Whatever frustrations you’ve experienced standing in lines, it’s a walk in the park compared to this nightmare.
Now, it’s possible that I’m going to look very stupid here, because I’ve watched this scene probably a dozen times and I’m still baffled as to how Andersson pulls it off. The first time I saw it, at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival, I assumed that there’s a gigantic mirror at the far end of the room, which would be the easiest way to create the illusion of vast space. Looking closely at it the second time, however (still at Toronto—I was so bowled over by the movie that I watched it again the very next day), it was clear that it couldn’t be a mirror. The luggage carts closest to the camera make it about halfway to the check-in counter, and that’s not reflected in the distance at all; when the golf clubs fall off and spill across the floor, no golf clubs are visible elsewhere. The background is not replicating the foreground. Sure, it’s possible that Andersson hired special-effects people to digitally remove those images, but I really doubt it—he seems way too devoted to practical effects, and there’s tons of stuff in the movie that could have been computer-animated but clearly was not. So I discarded the mirror hypothesis, and waited to get hold of a DVD.
As it turns out, I wound up buying a Canadian DVD (out of impatience), which had no extras of any kind. But there’s another edition out there that does feature some making-of supplements, which have made their way onto the Internet. Maddeningly, however, the one depicting the creation of the airport scene doesn’t answer my question, despite showing roughly a dozen different stages of the process. I mean, it does, in a sense: The far end of the room is a painting. Once you know that, you can even see exactly where the painting is in the actual film—there are discernible lines on the floor and ceiling in the right location. But there are figures moving inside the painting. Not in most of the rehearsal footage (though one test duplicates the effect), but certainly in the completed scene. As the shot continues, the presumably fake travelers in the distant background clearly move forward. There’s even one luggage cart way back there that gets ahead of all the others. I have no idea how that was done, and seeing the behind-the-scenes footage only makes it more mysterious, because it’s just a painting. And it’s not a mirror. So how? If the answer is just “computers,” I’ll feel less dumb, but I confess I’ll also be a bit disappointed.
Whatever the secret may be, it doesn’t alter the shot’s conceptual power. Even if the room didn’t seem to go on for a mile, the sight of all these well-dressed people struggling to drag all their worldly possessions toward that row of infinitely patient blue-garbed employees would still hit a note midway between hilarity and despair (the dominant note of the entire film). Only the people at the two luggage carts closest to us are recognizable characters, but from what we’ve seen of them, we can extrapolate that we’re looking at the most craven and despicable sliver of the population, and their inability to do something as basic as just getting across the room seems symptomatic of whatever caused the movie’s unexplained mess in the first place. Even with their very lives in danger (or so it appears—again, nothing is ever explicitly stated), they can’t bear to leave anything behind. Wherever they’re headed might have golf courses. That the employees never lift a finger to help them, or even visibly acknowledge their presence, conveys its own editorial message. (Who the people watching from up above are, I have no clue.)
What’s perhaps most interesting, though, is the way Andersson approaches the shot (and every shot). He doesn’t build a set and then decide upon the best place to put the camera. He locks the camera down first and then builds the set in front of it. The lines of perspective have been minutely worked out in advance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew precisely what angle the floor tiles would be at before the crew arrived. (Note that the characters nearest us travel on a diagonal that follows the tiles, rather than moving in a straight line the way any normal person would.) It’s very much as if Andersson conceives the scene as a tableau and then hires people to construct it for him in three dimensions. About halfway through the behind-the-scenes video, there’s a test shot in which the background painting features the enormous round overhead lights that haven’t yet been installed in the actual set, which provides a good sense of how much Songs From The Second Floor functions as an insanely large-scale diorama. I keep waiting for another filmmaker to show signs of an Andersson influence, but so far nobody’s dared. He remains sui generis.